In February, 3C Institute celebrated its 20th anniversary. To reflect on the company’s impact over the past two decades, CEO and founder Dr. Melissa DeRosier sat down with one of our editors to discuss how 3C started, what it has accomplished, and where it is headed.
Q: Why did you start 3C Institute?
A: Before I started 3C, I was working on a five-year grant, known as the FIRST Award, from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). With the grant, I began working in schools all across the Wake County Public Schools System, and I was investigating my primary areas of interest, children’s social development and peer problems. I wanted to discover how we can help children adjust better to school, both academically and behaviorally. The grant got me into the community and into schools, and the schools asked me to develop an intervention to help kids who were teased, bullied, rejected, and left out—the kind of kids who were the focus of my research.
The result was Social Skills Group Intervention (S.S.GRIN), an evidence-based small group social skills training program. My work in the schools happened at a time when I was trying to figure out how to spend my career doing something that would impact children’s lives in a positive way. I didn’t see academia as the path for me to do that, so I decided to found 3C Institute.
Working out of my attic, I applied for three Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, all of which received funding and made it possible to build and later expand the company. My goal was to make sure my research would have a real-world impact.
Q: How has 3C Institute changed over the past 20 years?
A: Beginning around 2006, we started moving toward technology to increase the scalability and reach of our products. Our goal was to build a sustainable business that would be less reliant on grants. At first, we really focused on game-based social-emotional learning (SEL). At that time, people were skeptical about using technology for mental health, and for some, we were too innovative. We were ahead of the curve. But we kept working hard until we won grants to create multiple games, including Adventures Aboard the S.S.GRIN, Zoo U, and Hall of Heroes. Once the research and development was done, we partnered with Tim Huntley, CEO of Centervention, to take our products to market. To date, he’s brought our SEL games to hundreds of thousands of children across the world!
Games were our first real entrée into technology. But as we worked on them, the possibilities really opened up. I thought to myself: if we can use technology to produce effective games, how else can it help address mental health and improve care?
That’s where our Dynamic e-Learning Platform (DeLP) came from. DeLP started as a means to support professional development for mental health providers. And then it evolved over time to include more and more interactive elements, such as virtual simulations and personalized assessments, eventually becoming what it is now: an effective and versatile platform for both professional development and self-paced learning.
Q: What makes 3C's games so innovative?
A: We’ve developed several original games with funding from the NIMH and the US Department of Education. Before ours, there were no evidence-based games for social-emotional development that worked. The games that did exist had several problems. They underestimated kids’ intelligence. They spoke down to kids. Their game play was boring because kids clearly knew how to answer the questions correctly. Because of these problems, kids didn’t like those games and didn’t play them. The games just weren’t effective.
Adventures Aboard the S.S.GRIN and Zoo U are truly the first games proven to be effective intelligent social tutoring systems. When I say intelligent, I mean that, as part of our game engine, we dynamically adjust game play based on player choices in order to challenge but not frustrate kids and to provide meaningful pedagogical assistance. The result is personalized play. That level of individualization didn’t exist until our SEL games came to market.
Another driver for creating game-based SEL was equity. People who get good mental health services tend to be those who can afford them, people who already have the resources and time for these services. There has always been—and there still is—a large gap in equity. Too often kids who need and would benefit from SEL don’t get it, and sometimes the ones who would benefit the most are the least likely to get it. I see games and technology-driven products more generally as ways to help overcome some of these financial and practical barriers.
Most importantly, our games actually help kids. That distinction sets us apart from nearly every other competitor.
Q: Around 2016, 3C Institute shifted toward a service-based model. How have these client partnerships changed the company's vision and technology?
A: In 2016, we really started to focus on how technology could be used to support other groups doing similar kinds of behavioral health work, not just our own. If we try to fulfill our mission of broadly improving health and well-being just by ourselves, we really limit our reach. Instead, we’ve found ways to expand our reach. We have effectively leveraged the technological infrastructure and features that we built and tested through SBIR grants to create a wide range of custom technologies for developers, researchers, and nonprofits across the country and beyond. Now our work seeks not only to improve the quality and implementation of our own programs but also to assist others like us as they do their good work. By helping others, we can better fulfill our own mission to improve health and well-being across the world.
Q: What sets 3C Institute apart from other software developers?
A: I know of no other company like us. We provide fantastic services, and we do so in a way that no other software company can compete with. The fact that our developers, editors, and artists—everybody in the company—can speak the language of behavioral health is vastly helpful when working with our partners. All of our clients fall under the umbrella of social-emotional and behavioral health. Because we speak the same language, we can talk to each other and move forward in a much more efficient, effective way.
If I couldn’t speak this language, or if my developers didn’t understand why programs need to be evidence-based, for example, we wouldn’t be nearly as good a partner for all of our clients who are doing such essential work.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced 3C Institute's mission?
A: If anything, the pandemic has validated our business model. Effective online learning is here to stay. I said there used to be skepticism about games, but there’s still skepticism about online learning more generally. For schools in particular, the pandemic has served as a forcing function. Suddenly people had to do remote learning. They had to look for online options to support their students. They had no other choice. Now that they’ve had these experiences, they’ve seen that online learning is viable. There’s going to be more of an appetite for the kinds of technology-based behavioral health products that we provide, even after life returns to normal.